“Say you can.”
You hear it over and over again at north Baton Rouge’s ExxonMobil YMCA, where kindergartners are floating on their backs for the first time and their moms are learning to glide through the deep end of the pool.
“Don’t say you can’t,” comes the next part of the instructors’ advice.
This summer children along with their parents and grandparents are learning to swim through the Y program that aims to teach water safety to entire families.
“We’re creating a generational change, teaching an entire family to be safe around the water and enjoy the summer,” says Ronald Smith, executive director of the ExxonMobil YMCA at Howell Place off Harding Boulevard.
According to a study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim. In comparison, 40 percent of white children can’t.
When parents do not know how to swim, there is a 13 percent chance the children won’t learn to swim, either, the study found.
Created through grants from Baton Rouge-area companies, the multi-generation swim program provides classes to kids enrolled in the Head Start education and health service for low-income children.
On her second day of lessons, Latricia Chappell, 39, practiced her strokes in one end of the pool while her 5-year-old son, Jaylen, learned to kick his legs in the shallow end.
Chappell put her head down to swim toward her instructor, practicing kicking and paddling at the same time. She did so well propelling herself across the pool, her instructor moved out of the way, and Chappell didn’t stop until she had swum into the deep end.
“I wasn’t going to stop her if she had the momentum!” says teacher Betty Glenn.
The two other moms in the class clapped for her before taking their own turns.
Chappell joined the class because she wants her son to enjoy the water. And she wants to keep him safe.
“He thinks he knows how to swim,” she says after their lesson. “I know a lot more than I did yesterday.”
Three years ago, the ExxonMobil YMCA at Howell Park received a grant from ExxonMobil to teach swimming to children in the Head Start education and health program. A year later, another grant from Louisiana Healthcare Connections insurance company paid to teach parents of Head Start students. This year, Tony’s Seafood provided a grant to teach their grandparents, too.
Last year about 300 children and adults signed up for classes, but only 100 actually completed the classes, Smith says. This year, the Y charged a $20 fee that is refunded upon completion of the course. He hopes the small financial commitment helps raise attendance.
Two weeks ago, Aniyah Stewart, a lanky 10-year-old, thought the water was scary. Not anymore. Not since she’s finished her swimming lessons.
“I need to learn how to swim because I’m scared when I’m in the water,” she says. “I start fighting the water.”
Everyone involved in the program takes two weeks of lessons, but the adults and children don’t have to stop. They can retake the classes until they feel comfortable in the water, Smith says.
“We’re going to keep them until the learn how to swim,” he says, “even if it takes all summer.”